Transcript: Space4U podcast, Bill Barry
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hi there. This is Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation. And this is the Space4U podcast conversations with the people who make today’s space adventures possible. Today, I’m here with Bill Barry, NASA’s Chief Historian, and he is the guardian of what I will call probably the coolest space archives on the planet.
Um, probably even more interesting than what the Smithsonian owns, but with the hub, like NASA, chief historian Bill, I got to ask, what does the NASA chief historian do? Well. Chief historian is kind of an interesting title. It’s really more like chief bureaucrat from a day-to-day basis because it’s really a management job.
I mean, I take care of the archive program and history program, which means I spend a lot of time in meetings and doing performance reviews and people’s timecards and that sort of stuff. So there’s a lot of sort of management work that’s involved. So you need to have a stomach for dealing with the bureaucracy, I guess if you’re going to be the chief historian, but you mean there’s paperwork involved with history, uh, is always.
Paperwork involved with history. In fact, you can’t do this. You would have lots of paperwork, at least not do it. Right. So how do you, you trained for a job like this, as far as, you know, managing something like this. And I understand what you said about managing performance reviews, but what’s your background that gets you into a spot like this and access to the talent archives that you have.
Yeah, that’s a question I get quite frequently is, you know, basically the question is how do I get the BG for story? And after you’re done, I was going to say, how do I get your job? And I get that a lot. And advice to people is don’t follow my path because it was a very long and circuitous and kind of random one.
But, uh, in my particular case, um, I spent 22 years in the air force and, uh, about half that time I was teaching at the air force Academy. Um, and when the air force very nicely sent me off to get my graduate work done, uh, I’d been basically as Soviet. Yeah. Area studies sort of specialist for most of my academic career.
Anyway. Yeah. I was supposed to go study Soviet defense policy, but by between the time I got selected to go to graduate school at the time I actually arrived at graduate school, the Soviet Union vanished, and suddenly there, I had to at a PhD in my opportunity in my hand and no real topic to talk about.
Uh, and so, uh, at that time, the, the lid came off on the. Former Soviet space program. And lots of things came out about what was going on in 1960s. And yeah, that seemed really interesting to me. And fortunately, my advisor was very interested in that. So, um, that, that, that became my, my dissertation topic.
And so I became sort of a Soviet history space, history person, uh, in the process of doing that. Um, and I got to know the NASA chief historian at the time, Roger Alanis. So when I was retiring from the air force, Right. Roger sends me this note at one point, it says, it’s Bill, why don’t you apply for a job at NASA?
And I said, Roger, what are the odds that, that, you know, you’re going to be dumb enough to leave your job at this point, or somebody else’s that they need my kind of weird skillset. Um, and they said, well, you never know. And it turns out Roger, his usual was, uh, the international office here at NASA was interested in hiring me to work on Soviet policy stuff that we were doing with the, with the Russian, sorry, Russia policy.
And so I got hired by NASA in 2001. I worked, uh, on Russia, U S relations for a couple of years. Then they sent me off to Paris to be the, of course I’m a Russia specialist. So where they send me, when they send me overseas to work in an embassy, uh, that represent NASA, they sent me to Paris to work with the Europeans, the Russians, this bureaucracy work.
And, uh, so I did that for three years in when I was coming back from that, that job. Uh, the NASA chief of storage job was open. And I had a PhD in basically, so we had space history and lots of teaching experience, lots of experience in a bureaucracy. And I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
And I got offered the job and I was very happy you take it so right place, right time. Yeah. Um, how do you become a chief historian, an acid, a, you know, a lot about it. The history, but you also need to have kind of some bureaucratic chops. You need to know how to be, ‘cause he works and be able to deal with the paperwork and all the other stuff.
I’ve, you know, I’ve been working for the government, my entire adult life. So, um, I think that’s probably the primary qualification in my case. Um, well let me ask you, you talk as someone who’s NASA’s chief historian, but then. Spending time dealing with the then Soviet Union. I got to ask this quick question, uh, out of the gate biggest differences that you’ve seen between NASA history and Soviet space history.
Uh, well, I think the biggest difference is that. In the former Soviet Union in Russia these days, um, the perspective on history is that that history is written for a purpose, uh, whereas in sort of the Western approach to the history, it’s, you’re trying to get at some fundamental truth. And, and there’s this concept that in fact there is some, some factual truth out there that you can find in and talk about, not so much on this, on the Russian and Soviet side, at least historically.
So you tend to find history they’re written for purpose, like the facts. Or somebody in that store that, uh, you know, push forward, some ideas you need to, when you’re dealing with, with those folks, you need to have an idea of, um, sort of where, you know, who they are, where they sit, where they’ve been and what their perspective is on things.
Yeah. Um, and then if you look at the Soviet space program now, to me, the big, the big thing is stands out is that, you know, we see the Soviet space program from the early sixties as being this monstrous machine where they had, they were incredibly powerful and it can do these things. It’s really not that at all.
I mean, there really wasn’t the Soviet space program. There were a couple of very talented individuals that had small teams that were extremely good engineers, like Sergei Cole, the other red that led what’s now space corporation, or Nordea that group very nimble, very smart, very capable of pulling things off.
But really the political decision to have a program of space exploration really didn’t exist. What they had was a series of sort of one-offs. Um, okay. You can launch Sputnik because you know, you’ve been irritated me about that for a long time and the top, very top political leadership with this communist party, it makes that decision.
There was no program beyond that other than, Oh, well that got a big international reaction. What can you do next? We can launch a dog at this space for you. And, and the program very clearly to me becomes sort of a series of one-off as well. What can you do about this? Um, and they really don’t make a decision to do sort of a serious human space exploration until 1964.
When he decided that the United States is actually serious about going to the moon, and then they initiate, uh, their own lunar program programs, several programs actually to try and hedge their bets. And it has in their bets, they actually sort of shot themselves in the foot. So instead of having a larger, concise plan, the way we.
Laid out Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, as you’re saying it was just truly one step and sort of tripping over themselves. What can we do next? Yeah, I mean, there were the people who actually ran the program, engineers and scientists behind the program, I think were extremely good. I mean, they were really incredible.
Um, and so I don’t want to tarnish their reputation now, but, but their dreams about what they would like to do were never incorporated by the political leadership in any great to any great extent. So the program, if you want to call it a program, um, becomes sort of a series of, you know, these sort of one-off events.
And it was, it’s really kind of the opposite. You know, we sort of see this, the Soviet Union is, is, you know, they had a big long-term plan and we’re going to do this great thing. And, and, and we see ourselves as kind of stumbling to catch up. In reality, it’s really quite the opposite. I mean, if you think about this, so what you need to have one launch vehicle that we’re still using now, right?
The thing that launched Sputnik, the basically the Soyuz launch vehicle has been modified and improved a lot. Right. But it’s the same launch vehicle now. It’s the only one they had until like, 1963, we had in the U.S. we had at least six different launch vehicles being developed based on various ICBM’s and things like that.
Uh, as well as, you know, sort of civil ones that were being developed at the time, our program was much broader and much more powerful. We just didn’t have the sort of nimble ability to figure out, Hey, what are the Soviets going to do next? And then B beat him to the punch because we were doing everything in the open.
He could watch what we were doing and they could see example that M Oh G the United States is being impaired by Jerry Cobb and these women who would think that they ought to be astronauts. And so, you know, let’s find a couple of women who can fly into space. Yeah. That’s where, that’s where the whole Valentina terror score thing came from.
Was it that happens after they see what’s going on in the U S and they make a decision because they didn’t have anything else to do. In the spring of ‘63, they didn’t have any new that it could do. So they basically flew the same mission that they formed the previous year in 1962, which is to a client, the orbit together in 60 sixties, they don’t have anything really new to do.
So let’s make an interest and we’ll put a woman on board flight terrorists, go for once, and you never see a Russian woman fly space again until the next time the United States is about ready women in space. So yeah, very much, very much politically driven and very much sort of a one-off program now. I have to take away from the fact that they had incredibly gifted and talented folks who really made things work, but, but not the sort of programmatic machine that we tend to imagine that the Soviet space program was when we think about one of the crown jewels that any history program has is its archives.
Tell me a little bit about the NASA archives what’s in there and how does someone access those archives? Okay, great question. We, um, of course. As a government agency, um, all government records, United States are supposed to go to the national archives and records administration. Um, and NASA’s records do go there.
But most agencies, as, as does NASA have retained a certain number of records, uh, or copies of things in particular, our case, it’s almost all copies of documents because it’s often hard to access stuff in the national archives. So we retain, uh, reference collections. We have one here at NASA headquarters.
Um, most of the NASA centers have a collection that they have for them. Things that are important to them. The collection here at headquarters is largely focused on policy issues, you know, headquarters level of things, but we also have a lot of depth of detail of other things largely because our first archivists, um, Lee was, uh, was such a, um, avid collector.
Shall we say? I was just about anything you could find is avid collector a polite way of saying a pack-rat? Uh, yes. Exactly. Uh, but Lee did an amazing job of, of, uh, when he was hired in early sixties, started in the archive and building it up. We’ve done some, some cleaning up down there as time goes along.
And, and, um, uh, as we find things, one of the, and one of the things recently we found actually that we actually had a file on J Edgar Hoover. You have, we had Hoover, we had a file and I think that. The whole reason was because that’s the first, I think that was the irony of that appealed to Lee. And he thought it was funny that we would have a file on J Edgar who writes as J Edgar going to have a file on everybody else.
So it was mostly news clippings and stuff that, that he found in a Washington post and other things like that. Um, and we didn’t need a file on Jared Gerber. So we eventually purged that one again, get rid of it, but he purged it. Yeah. We, you know, we didn’t, you know, we digitize things that we’ve used to it, it was, but most of it was like I said, clippings from, I think the rest of the country would love to see you.
J Edgar Hoover that somebody else came up with it, it wasn’t very informative other than what if your newspapers about you Gerber. But, uh, so the collection is eclectic to say the least very broad based. Um, we have quite a bit of stuff, many people who are writing about space history. Uh, we’ll come here.
Margaret Lee, Shetterly the woman who wrote him figures. One of the first places she came and she was doing her research for that book was here. She spent quite a bit of time in our archive downstairs. So how do you get to the archive? It’s open to the public. Um, you have to, it’s a government building, so you can’t just walk in the building and use it.
But if you make it go to our website appointment to see our folks downstairs or archival team, and they’ll be happy to host people that want to come to research and look at what we have in the collection here, or we can send you to others. Uh, NASA facilities that have, uh, open archives. Some of them are open, some are closed, like for example, our flight research centers in the middle of Edwards air force base.
And it’s difficult to get access onto the air force base so that one’s not an open archive, but generally speaking, we’re working, we’re moving towards a situation where we’re digitizing as much as we can, and then we’re making that stuff available online. So we’ll also, we also have access to collection online.
Uh, in fact, we’re about to roll out this summer a new history website. History.nasa.gov that will allow people to get more direct access to the archival collection than we’ve had in the past. So, and it would be mobile-friendly, which will be nice to see. Okay. You mentioned hidden figures and, and we’ve had certainly a number of different movies, like hidden figures and first man, and certainly Apollo 13.
And you mentioned that different authors and researchers come here. Do you folks find yourself? Regularly consulting on movie and multimedia projects like that. And do you guys ever go back and say, Hey, you got this wrong, I’m laughing about the D you got this thing wrong part because with a feature film in particular, there’s always a trade-off.
And, you know, trying to tell a story in 90 minutes in a way that the public will pay money to go see, uh, there’s likely to be some compromises on the story. So there’s always something about it that, that someone won’t like. But, uh, in fact, the NASA history office is. It’s been helping out with, uh, historical space and aerospace movies for years, generally, that stuff is initiated.
Whoever’s doing the movie. So for example, um, when, um, uh, Ron Howard was doing, uh, from the earth to the moon, um, and Apollo 13 first, and then when Tom makes it from the earth and moon, both of those products, two companies came to the history office here and did some work here. And we sent them to other history facilities around the agency where they needed to, to get access to things, to make sure they get the story straight.
And so we helped out on that, uh, From time to time other historical movies they’re there they’re really, after Apollo 13 from the earth to the moon, there weren’t that many, but then the last few years has been a big surgeon interest. Uh, so we’ve been involved pretty heavily in some of the movies, like hidden figures.
Uh, first man, um, the Apollo 11 documentary movie that, you know, the great one that Todd Miller just did, you would have been involved in providing both fact checks on things that they’re doing interested in, but also just sort of general advice on where to find things. Um, and how to, how to get to the data or, or various other archival material that might be of interest.
When most people think about history, certainly American history. This Smithsonian comes to mind NASA and the Smithsonian have had a long-standing relationship. Tell me a little bit more about that relationship and how does the Smithsonian get all of your cool leftover. Stuff. There’s an agreement that NASA had signed with the Smithsonian back in early sixties, off the top of my head.
I think it was 62 or so somewhere in that range though in the 1960s, NASA agree that any artifacts that, that we weren’t going to keep and which we’re, you know, we’re government agency and we’re not allowed to build warehouses. The stick, the cool stuff in there, keep it because it’s cool. You know, we’re, we’re required to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money.
And if we don’t need something, it’s time to get rid of it. You know, uh, if it’s of historic interest, the Sonia wanted those things. So we, we signed an agreement early on with the leadership, with the aerospace museum that they were basically have first dibs on anything that we were getting rid of.
There’s a, there’s an entire process that NASA now has for dealing with artifact material for how we move things out. And the Smithsonian still has a role to play in that. But first. If, if something is determined to be excess, uh, it’s offered to other parts of NASA organization, other other organizations in NASA first.
And if they, if nobody else has a need for it, then it goes to the, okay, we’re going to access this. Where’s it go to Smithsonian kind of gets the first shot at it. But also we want to make sure that other educational institutions and museums, I also have access to that material. What is the relationship?
The agreement we have the Smithsonian is that they’re basically our museum or record. Um, so I like to tell new employees when they come into the NASA headquarters, you know, You don’t find a whole lot of NASA’s history in this building because it’s just a government building, but three blocks away walk over to the aerospace museum.
That’s basically our museum. Don’t tell the aerospace piece. You guys, I said that I’m glad we don’t have that on tape. We wouldn’t have had that on tape. That’d be too embarrassing. Yeah, we wouldn’t wanna be quoted on that, but, uh, really, if you walk in there and you walk into the milestone, the fight gallery.
How many of those things hanging in milestones, the flight gallery say NASA on them or NAC a Mo a lot of the cool stuff. That’s there is the NASA stuff. And, and really, you can see the, the whole panoply of aerospace history there, uh, in both government, NASA related things, but also all the other private stuff and corporate stuff that’s happened in our, in our history and aerospace.
But for an asset point, you to walk around, there really is a lesson on all the great things that the giants that worked in this agency. Us and done. And it’s a, to me it’s a huge boost to walk a hundred and see, you know, this is what the people before us did, and this is the legacy they left us. And this is what we’re building on in terms of, you know, putting humanity, um, into the leading edge of aerospace research exploration.
If history is a brand, you guys certainly have by far the, the, probably the greatest brand anywhere within the federal government. If not the country in that regard, uh, the minute someone sees that logo, they, they immediately know, Hey, they’ve done some really, really great things there. What was the 50th anniversary of Apollo now being celebrated over the next several years?
And we’ve got the moon landing anniversary coming up here. What is it as a historian? I I’ve got to ask you, what if there’s a particular piece of history out of those life-changing missions that you think deserves more credit or more attention that hasn’t really seen the light of day? What is that sort of piece of history?
We always focus upon. Certainly the moon landing, which is great, but there’s some other big pieces that probably deserve attention. There are so many things, uh, in, in massive history that I think are, are under appreciated by people. I mean, I think everybody understands, you see the NASA logo, that what we call it, affectionately, the meatball that round with the red splash across it, which by the way, that red thing on it, there that’s an actual, uh, supersonic wind design from the 1950s that was incorporated into design by the guy who designed the NASA logo.
Many people refer to it as the vector or the wing or some other thing. Um, but it was actually a classified project that the NSCA was working on in the late 1950s for the air force. And that’s part of the reason why they were kind of unclear about what it was, but it was actually based on an actual wind tunnel model that the guy who designed the logo actually saw anyway, that’s not, I think the most important thing to understand about NASA, but the NAC, the organization.
NASA was built on the national advisory committee for aeronautics founded in 1915, much like NASA was created AF or during world war one. When the United States realized it was behind an aeronautics research and we invent the airplane, but then 10 years later, the Europeans were far ahead of us. Uh, so again, the NSCA comes into being as a, as a way to catch up in terms of research.
And that’s an amazing organization that, that, because we jumped into the space program and, uh, in 1960s, and that became the exciting thing. Um, NSCA history, I think is very much not appreciated. That’s one thing from Apollo history in particular, the thing that I think is most interesting and in part, because it’s my personal interest is the Soviet space program.
What happened? The story that really doesn’t fit with the profile that most people think of about the Apollo program is the fact that the moon race happened. I mean, most people these days, if you ask them about it, it’s like, yeah, we w president Kennedy said, we’re going to go to the moon because we. He did the beat, the Soviet Union.
Right. And then, well, whatever happened to that Soviet Union thing, people sort of say, well, I assume that they dropped out of the race. Uh, in fact there was a race to the moon. It just didn’t start when we thought it did. And it didn’t end when we thought it did either. So it’s, didn’t take the Kennedy challenge seriously until after president Kennedy was dead.
And we were, we were starting to build rockets that were bigger than EHRs in the spring of 1964, they had a wakeup call and it realized that United States was really serious about going to the moon. And so they initiated this. Number 64, not one, but two competing human programs. Both of them moving one was to send a circle, lunar flight around the moon.
And the other was to basically a duplicate of Apollo to descend one astronaut to the surface of the moon. Uh, those programs want to competing with each other and yeah, either Vermont at being successful. Uh, and after Apollo eight flies around the moon in 1968, their best chance of beating us by flying someone around the moon, uh, gets preempted by Paulo.
And you think, okay, so the moon race is over and. December, 1968, but you’d be wrong because in January, 1969, the Soviet polyp Bureau met and they said we can’t let the Americans beat us to the moon. We have to have something. And they turned to their robotic probe Baker guy named skin, and he designed in six months.
A project could go to the moon and bring back a sample. They launched the first one of those in June of 1969, but rocket, it was on blew up for good into orbit that wants the second one on July 13th, 1969, three days before Apollo 11 launched it. That probe Luna 15 was an orbit around the moon when Neil and Buzz and Mike arrived at the moon, you have a bus land on the moon.
They do their Eva they’re back into the lunar module. So he’s realized that they’re run out of time. What we didn’t know at the time was that the radar radar altimeter thing that the sermons hide is above the ground on Luna 15 was malfunctioning. They decided to go take a chance anyway, that they hit the retro limited 15 first to land on the surface of the moon two hours before a Newland buzzer about the launch off the surface of the moon and, um, Luna 15 crashed into him.
So when’s the moon race actually end July 21st, 1969. After we’d already walked on the moon because of the Atlanta Luna 1500. Winning successful again, a sample bag, which they did do a couple of years later, actually their robotic probe actually worked, but if they’ve been successful in July, 1969, Nikita called Nate.
So you sent, do you guys to the surface of the moon and endangered their lives. We did it safely with the robot probe. I think the history would have been very different if that had been successful on an app, all it comes down to the photo op in the end, doesn’t it to a great extent, uh, you know, having those rocks and having those great pictures were, are big thing as communities around the country and literally around the world.
Gathered to sort of celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary. What’s the most important lesson they should know and share remembering about that accomplishment. I think there, there are a number of really important legacies that come out of the Apollo program. Um, and, uh, I’d say that the first one is United States achieve the primary approval to political objective of the Apollo program.
Um, and you have to remember that the political objective, the popper, and the reason we spent $25 billion going to the moon. It wasn’t for science or. You sure. I think it was because we were in a, in a race with the Soviet Union, uh, you know, with the cold war and, uh, in 1961, when a decision was made, there was a question around the world, whether the U S Western democratic capitalist economic model was actually better than the Soviet model or countries.
Yeah, new countries in the world, uh, new, former colonies that were making choices. And the decision to go to the moon was based on proving to the rest of the world. That in fact, our system worked better than the Soviet system. We achieved that objective. And then after that, you know, why did we not continue going and going to the moon?
Well, because we’d achieved the objective and check the box. But the big thing to me is that, uh, which had the political goal. That’s the first thing. Second thing was despite the fact that it wasn’t a primary goal at the time when, when the decision was made, science became. The important part of the programming and the Apollo program, the samples we brought back revolutionize our understanding of the earth moon system and therefore the solar system and, and whole bunch of other things that had a huge impact on our understanding about the, the universe we live in.
Third thing I would say that Apollo gave us was, um, a huge technological boost to the economy. Now, would we have had integrated circuits? We hadn’t had that Paulo. Yeah. They invented an integrated circuits. But the thing that happened with the computer revolution that Paula had an effect on was that NASA was the biggest customer for integrated circuits in the early 1960s.
In fact, we were like the only person, only the only organization that was buying integrated circuits. And we were demanding them in huge numbers at high reliability rates. So basically Fairchild semiconductor, and a couple of other companies that were there were, you know, um, Texas instruments, other companies that were designing the first integrated circuits, they are, they were extremely expensive, highly unreliable by the mid 1960s.
They’re incredibly, incredibly cheaper than it were. And what’s more powerful than it had been. Um, and IBM, right. Who at the same time that we made the decision to build the Apollo guidance computer based on integrated circuits, IBM was, was building some new series of computers. They decided to go with.
Distrust instead of integrated circuits because the integrated circuits were too expensive and not reliable off 10 years later when they’re making decisions about the next round of computers, everybody’s going with integrated circuits because the Apollo program had driven it, driven the cost down.
There was a demand by the way, for the military side of the house for, for ICBM’s you needed integrated circuits for those two. But, um, that really wasn’t what drove the price in production, the quality. So what gift this Apollo give us economically. It basically gives us the computer revenue. In a way that happens in a quick way, that’s publicly open.
You know, it’s just been minute, man. ICBM’s would integrate circuits of proliferate into the economy so fast, probably not, maybe eventually. Right. Most likely eventually, but when you’ve got an open program and you’ve got 20,000 companies across the United States, you know, spending all that money and it’s in, they’re able to not worry about, you know, restrictions on the technology because of the military concerns.
That’s the proliferates out immediate, inner, huge benefits to the. Lots of different ways. Um, and, and this whole revolution happens on things. There are a number of other aspects about that. The person though, the one I’ve talked to about this that has mentioned about NASA giving birth to the computer revolution.
I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but in very, it’s true, uh, as to the integrated circuitry and all of that, because again, um, at that point, people were used to computers being the size of the room. And, uh, very frankly, that was not what we were going to launch on board a command module. It needed to be certainly much, much more condensed.
There’s a lot of planning going on right now for project Artemis to get back to the moon and Mars. If you had the opportunity to counsel the administrator and others, as we’re planning to go about this, uh, going about this mission, what are two or three lessons that they should draw from, from the Apollo era?
To help them make Artemis and subsequent missions of success. Well, actually I do get the counsel of the administrator. One of my, one of my many job functions is to be the advisor to the administrator on historical matters. So, um, I actually get asked once in a while, you know what I think about things or, or to prepare, you know, background information on whatever the topic might be that might be of interest and so on Artemis.
I think the important historical lessons from Apollo are that you need, you need to have a clear objective. Uh, and in our case with Apollo, you had a president who had a very clear objective and, and set very clear parameters. You also, the government doesn’t run just on the executive agency though. And one of the key things on the Apollo that happened was the Congress moved very quickly and got on board very rapidly.
And that story really hasn’t been told very well. I don’t think about what happened. Between the time president Kennedy made that speech in May of 1961. And by the end of that summer, when, um, the Congress was, was, you know, doubling NASA’s budget that year and the next year and the next year. So, um, having, uh, congressional support is really important about that.
And then the other lesson I draw is the importance of making sure your organization, uh, is functional. Uh, NASA was in a huge growth spurt. There was a lot of potential for things to go wrong and. You needed to have an organization that was flexible, but also rigid enough that you could depend on, you know, planning for planning purposes, where things were going.
One of the key figures in early NASA history that I think doesn’t get a lot of credit is a guy named Hugh Dryden. Dryden had been head of the NAC, had thought that he was going to be ahead of NASA, um, in the spring of 1958 when it was being created. But certain congressional leaders didn’t like him very much and blamed him for Sputnik, even though actually the opposite is true here.
So he’d been preparing the NAC for the BIA space agency all through the 1950s, but nonetheless, he basically took the blame. He actually was offered a job as a professor at a major college in Eastern East coast of the U S and was planning on leaving the organization when Keith Glennan became the first administrator he did.
So only under the condition that Dryden stayed around. Um, and then when Jim Webb comes in in 1961 as a new asset minister under the Kennedy administration, he said the same thing they said, Oh, I’ll take the job. And only a few times. Hangs around there. It tells you something about the importance of Dryden, too.
Being a guy who understands the organization and how it’s building and making sure that the infrastructure gets built. But also he was an important broker among all the very big egos that were happening because they’re very selfless kind of guy. And he played a really important role in getting the organization to work functionally by sort of providing the grease between the big personalities and making sure that, uh, the organization function effectively.
Um, so you, you need an organization that. Works together well, and you need the right people in the right place and they need, they need to be dedicated. And you need someone to do that role of the broker for you. What’s the biggest historical surprise you’ve encountered in this job. For me, I’ve been at space fanatics and right.
Probably four years old. Um, I suspect that’s about the age. My parents used to tell me you want, you used to want to be a dump truck driver and then suddenly got excited about the space stuff. Um, it’s about the time of John Glenn’s flight. Uh, so there wasn’t a whole lot that I, that I sorta didn’t know about our space history, NASA history.
What really surprised me a few years back was when we were getting ready for the NAC Centennial and national advisory committee for economics. Um, and, and I realized that I knew virtually nothing about the NACS. And how important its role was in getting the United States to the forefront of aeronautics research in the twenties and thirties.
And it would have a big role to play in providing the margin and performance we needed in world war II in an aircraft to do win a war and world war two huge, huge impact. And then of course it then plays a role in supersonic high-speed flight research and ended to the space program in the late forties and fifties.
But the NAC, it was to me, the biggest surprise coming into this job was what. The impact it had on our history. What’s better at capturing NASA’s history. It’s stunning visuals that come from its missions or the memos and conversations with the people who make all of that happen. I have to say both, right?
And they both serve a function. The visuals are of course, you know, power incredibly powerful. And if. It had been really sort of our, you know, the way we achieve brand recognition. I guess, if you want to call it that, but the images alone in the video alone, don’t tell you this story in depth, like you need to understand, and there’s this certain degree of depth of being able to look at the documents and find out, for example, the role that Hugh Dryden plays in nerdy space program, or, you know, any number of other, you know, things that seem unimportant.
And so there’s a place there. I mean, NASA. Deals with its its history in terms of, you know, applying it to the future in lots of different ways. We have a knowledge management office that deals largely with lessons learned and lessons learned are great. I love them, but they don’t give you this sort of deep textual depth of, you know, why did this happen?
Know this is the lesson, but how did, how did we wind up learning this lesson in the first place? And so. Please, I think for narrative history there, and you can’t do the narrative history, if you don’t have the documents to understand it. And if you also don’t have, for example, all histories and we have a very active oral history program where we not only have the pieces of paper that, that people are worried about or the now of electronic documents, but we also have, you know, the, what’s the story behind that by talking to people about, uh, about that.
So the oral history program, is that an important part, as well as the documentary evidence that we gathered, I’m going to use your phrase. You described yourself as a self-professed space fanatic. Yep. Okay. Starting at the age of four, which is probably about the same time as me on all of that, but I’ve got interesting age.
Well, it, it certainly is impressionable and moving from dump trucks to Kraft is, uh, you know, certainly, uh, you know, A leap in a lot of different directions, but I’m going to give you three seats at an imaginary dinner table to invite three space pioneers for dinner and to have a conversation. Who were those three people?
Oh, I wish I had like a hundred seats, but you got the right. If it’s just three, my research interests it’s largely been in the, in the Soviet space program. So at the top of my list has to be Sergei, which Korolyov. He was the genius behind the early Soviet space program diet, unfortunately, 1966, but I would love to meet him and talk with him.
Um, Robert Goddard. I grew up in Massachusetts. Robert Goddard was a hometown hero, you know, there for me and across the border to New Mexico. We want to talk about that. I want to talk about that, but, uh, God, it is, it’s another one. Um, I think largely, I mean, these people know who he is now, but I think there’s a lot about him that underappreciated don’t understand it.
Uh, and, and really it’s, it’s sad that, uh, Uh, he did so much work in any winds up dying during world war II, uh, working on solid fuel rocket motors at Annapolis, Maryland, um, at a research facility attached to what’s now the Naval Academy here. And, um, and so that’s Goddard’s number two and number three. Um, I, again, going for the underdog here, um, I’m going to have to go with huge Dryden, fascinating guy in the 1960s, Dryden.
Uh, you know, he gets passed over for the job, gets stuck in the swallows. His pride stuck as a deputy at NASA for a long period time. 1962, he’s diagnosed with cancer and could easily have quit, but does he quit? No, he stays at the job, but works until he dies in December, 1965. And look at the kind of schedule he has.
Uh, I’ve gone to some of his records. Send his personal records to Johns Hopkins, which is where he graduated from the youngest PhD ever from Johns Hopkins, by the way, 1920 or his dissertation on supersonic flight in the twenties in 1920. Yep. Um, but dragging NASA employees in the 1960s work the six days week, right.
They, they, that regular schedule that Monday through Friday, Saturday, it had all the meetings at NASA headquarters to talk about, you know, where they were and what the plans were. All right. And you think that on the seventh day he was arrested. But no dragon actually was, uh, an, uh, minister in the Methodist church.
And on Sundays he would go out and give oxygen churches all over the area. And sometimes he’d invited places and refuse to accept payment for it. And there’s a, normally it was an honorarium that went with that sort of thing. He would refuse to accept payment for those things. And it talks largely about the space program and its importance.
And it’s really just implication from things like that. Fascinating guy. And I’d love to have a chance to chat with him in the sixties. NASA had an exclusive relationship with life magazine. And that really captured the astronauts, uh, at work again, their missions and certainly captured their families.
That type of exclusive relationship could not exist today and probably will not exist as we go through project Artemis and the other missions. But I am curious. From a historian’s perspective. What do you hope to, what do you see is the methods that we’re going to end up capturing this astronaut and their families and the larger story?
What do you see is going to capture that relationship? So that. Your successors generations from now can sit here and talk about what were the lessons learned? What do you hope that they are going to use to tell that story? Well, the life magazine contract is an interesting one and one that was fraught with a considerable amount of peril for NASA because of the ethical, there’s some ethical concerns and you know, the things, uh, you notice that get wrapped up reasonably quickly after the mercury or seven sort of moved on in those days.
That’s how you get there. You either went through the three existing three network channels or, um, you know, you went through with, through Newsmax, most people do news magazines or newspapers. The world has changed now and we’ve got social media and basically direct contact with the public. And, um, I, I think we’re going to, we will see some sort of hybrid thing as we’re doing now where NASA, um, you know, people find out about NASA information, both online on the website, but also through print media as well and traditional newspapers and media resources.
But I think social media is really gives us a tool that allows us to go direct to people and interact in a way that, that wasn’t possible before, you know, w when I was a kid and I did this all time, if you want to find out about what’s going on, you wrote a letter and you probably did this too, right?
Yep. Yeah. I, I, I, I read the letter like every month to a different NASA center. Because it sends you a different package of stuff every time. And so, and you get this print stuff, right? Um, and nowadays that’s all, that’s all available online. You can look around for it wherever you want online. And, but in those days you had to communicating with the public was expensive, quiet printing things.
And, uh, and, uh, operation that interacted with, with brokers, you know, news, media of various sorts. And now NASA can basically go direct as well as through those other sources. And that provides us a way to reach. Not the people and provides a connection. So if I’m, uh, you know, if, if I’m a space geek who is, once I find out more about NASA, I can look at it online, but I can also tweet at NASA history, which is our Twitter account and say, Hey, what about this?
And, and guess what? I have someone know Lance, or your question for you. Please most of the time. I mean, it’s some days we’re really busy. We don’t get to all the questions, but, but, um, so that provides, I think a degree of connectedness with the program where people can feel more like they’re part of the program.
And we deliberately, you know, in our social media, um, outreach, especially in the history program, you know, the part that I oversee anyway, we deliberately try and make people feel like they’re, you know, they’re part of the program. You know, we, we, we don’t use astronauts full long names and titles, you know, it’s not Dr.
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s it’s you know, Chris Hatfield. Or whoever it is that you’re using. Um, because we want people to feel like, you know, these you’re part of this team, you know, you’re a attack, particularly if you’re a taxpayer United States. If you’re paying for this, you can be part of this and not only be involved in it in some way, but maybe, you know, if you’re a kid and you’re looking for the future, maybe you’re going to be, you’re working for an asset someday here for some company that does aerospace exploration work or whatever.
Uh, you know, you, you, they take you like me 40 years to get there, but you may eventually wind up, you know, having a business card with an SME. Yeah. Maybe even being chief historian, maybe, but you’re going to hold on to this job for a while. Um, I’m kind of enjoying it so far. Well, I can imagine that two quick final questions.
What’s your favorite NASA history moment. Oh, you got to pick one? Yeah. There are so many to choose from. Um, And you can’t say Apollo 11. Yeah. That would be too obvious at this point. Right? Um, I think probably Apollo 13. I mean that really, as much as Apollo 11 was really important. Uh, and it was a milestone breakthrough, Apollo 13 brought us Britain asset back from irrelevance in some ways, uh, you know, would achieve the objective of landing on the moon and the public really completely lost interest.
I remember being really frustrated with, uh, with the Apollo 13 cause. Network work, covering carrying the coverage, uh, before the accident happened. Okay. Uh, but suddenly people became more interested. Uh, astronauts became more, um, more part of the public debate. Um, and I think that in a lot of ways that that sort of rescued the Apollo program from a much slower burn out, I suppose, in some ways that’s why I thought Apollo 13, but there no.
Um, my favorite picture. Um, let me, let me throw this one. My favorite picture though is actually of, um, um, the Mars exploration, where we’re sitting on the edge of a crater on Mars taken by the Mars, Mars, orbiter. Well, I mean, how cool is this that we have robot probes on the surface of another planet and to be, we have pictures of them from our other robot probes and orbit around this planet.
That’s that’s one of my favorites. That’s pretty amazing. That’s it. Last question you mentioned, uh, having spent some time in Colorado Springs, what’s your favorite part of Colorado Springs? The Air Force Academy. That’s a recorded answer. I’m a graduate of the Academy. So, but, but, uh, I, I love Colorado Springs.
It’s. Uh, I, I spent, uh, the late 70s, there was this student at the Air Force Academy. And then that was back in the late eighties as an instructor on the faculty. And again, in the late 90s as an instructor and a faculty. And, uh, it’s just, it was a great place for family facilities out there.
Great. Yeah, the climate is wonderful. It’s a really nice place to live and, uh, uh, it’s, it’s really for my family. It’s our second home. Um, I’m getting homesick now, just thinking about it, Bill Barry. Thank you very much. Um, this is Rich Cooper. Who’s been having a great conversation here with NASA, chief historian, Bill Barry.
This has been the Space4U podcast, where again, we capture the thoughts and experiences of the people who make today’s space, adventures possible. Bill, thank you for what you and your team do to record that history and share it with all of us. And remember to keep a watch for future episodes of the Space4U podcast more are always available at our website at spacefoundation.org, and always remember at the Space Foundation we have space for you. Thank you.
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